Most innovation these days is conducted by large teams of scientists and engineers in well-funded labs, but it pays to remember that many of the inventions that make modern life possible started out in much humbler circumstances – from the Wright brothers' bicycle workshop to the kitchen stovetop where Charles Goodyear first made vulcanized rubber. But don't think the age of the lone inventor working away in his own backyard is over completely.
To find proof of this, you need look no further than YouTube. There are all sorts of creations on there that are imaginative, ingenious, and complex. And very, very dangerous. While you might stare open mouthed in surprise that anyone was ever reckless enough to try these things, there is a twisted fascination and admiration in watching someone risk their safety for their passion. So here are 15 YouTube science projects where their tinkerers are clearly putting their lives on the line for science (and our entertainment):
Thermite gun and 70mph mobility scooter
The daddy of all YouTube inventors, the archetypal eccentric Englishman in a shed, Colin Furze has built everything from a firework nerf gun to a homemade hoverbike. He's even built a life-size TIE fighter (sadly it doesn't fly... yet). It goes without saying that most of his inventions come with a certain level of danger, but even among this whackjob British inventor's creations one or two stand out.
It'd be temping to pick the thermite launcher as the most dangerous. After all, thermite gets so hot it's used to weld railway tracks together, and it can burn through just about anything; even English rain wouldn't be enough to stop it. Lobbing a thermite bomb through the air with a homemade launcher seems like a recipe for disaster, especially for whatever you're firing it at. If the homemade launcher fails, you're then left having to decide whether to reach into the contraption and pull out the lit thermite bomb to throw it manually, or just to drop the whole thing and run for it.
However, if you go back really far in his channel, you find a couple of stunts that make you wonder if he wasn't involved in some sort of insurance fraud scheme. Logically, driving a souped-up mobility scooter without any safety clothing at 50 mph on snow can only have been an intentional attempt to injure himself. Or, being generous, maybe he'd just watched the classic British film The Italian Job, and decided to plan a heist at a Walmart in suburban Indiana. Either way, mobility scooters aren't generally designed with high-speed handling in mind, and if you come off of one at 50 mph you're likely to lose a lot of skin, and probably vital organs too.
Still, give grandma one of these and at least you won't get complaints that she's been holding up traffic the next time she decides to drive it on the road. Of course, you may end up having to pay her speeding tickets, but that's okay because you'll probably be getting your inheritance a lot sooner than you otherwise would have.
Infrared death ray
Do you ever think that the 1950s would be disappointed with us? If you look back through '50s magazines you see grand visions of the future. Flying cars. Bases on the moon. Robots that can cook you dinner, before taking the kids out of your hair so you can sit back and enjoy a scotch and a good cigar. And astronauts shooting ray guns at saucer-driving little green men.
Well, one Youtuber is still intent on keeping the dream alive with his very own home built laser gun. Sorry – guns, plural. Although he sounds like he's about 14, Styropyro – otherwise known as Drake Anthony – is actually one of the longest-serving content creators on Youtube, having uploaded videos since 2006, and boy has he made some improvements since his first forays with dinky little laser-pointers.
Styropyro's laser guns are so dangerous that they're capable of blinding you even when they're pointed directly away from you, which is why in a lot of his videos his face is covered by a heavy-duty welding mask. God help you if you actually get in the path of one of these beasts, because his most recent designs can burn through steel cans in a second or two.
Ironically the most dangerous part of handling Styropyro's lasers comes before he even switches them on, since giving them that kind of punch requires dealing with seriously high-powered electronics which could fry him even faster than the laser beam if he screws up the wiring. He's also experimented with wireless power transmission and explosive chemistry.
However, in terms of danger there's one invention of his that manages to edge out ahead of the pack: the IR laser. This infra-red version of his laser gun carries similar dangers to his other designs, but comes with one key difference: the beam is totally invisible. If you switched this thing on accidentally, you wouldn't realize it until your eyeballs melted out of your face.
(everything prior to about 4:44 is background info)
Styropyro has yet to divulge why he feels the need to build these lethal little devices, but if you see flying saucers overhead, you know who to turn to.
It's the holy grail of nerd-dom: a fully-functional lightsaber. Many have tried, but most have never made more than a fancier version of the glorified novelty lamp you got for your 10th birthday. For some reason, this is one idea that the Pentagon isn't willing to pump billions of dollars of defense dollars into; it's almost as if having a hand-held plasma blade as hot as the sun isn't a practical weapon.
But that didn't stop The Hacksmith, a group of Canadian engineers who get their kicks (and ad revenue) out of designing real-life versions of movie props. While they haven't got as far as a blade of pure plasma, they do have a tungsten-titanium rod with enough electricity running through it to make it glow orange. It certainly looks like a lightsaber, and at 3000 degrees Celsius it probably feels like one too.
Quite apart from the obvious potential to melt your own leg off with a mis-timed swing, the amount of current needed to run it requires a whole backpack full of batteries. These deliver so much power that any loose wire would leave the wearer looking like they'd had an encounter with Emperor Palpatine's force lightning; in the testing phase they regularly burnt out components and set the whole apparatus on fire.
Still, leaving the potential self-barbecue aside, isn't there a little bit of ten year old in all of us who can't wait to start slicing through sheet-metal with this thing?
BMW with a jet engine, and bicycle with a helicopter engine
We all knew the Russians would be on this list somewhere. They were the first people to put a satellite in orbit, the first people to put a man in space, and the first people to build a permanent space station, and they did it all by jury-rigging, and simply ignoring their way around problems while the Americans were still hung up on things like "safety procedures" and "failsafes."
Continuing the fine Russian tradition of focusing on the "could I?" and leaving the "should I?" until after the first fatality, we have Игорь Негода, or Igor Negoda. For the past few years he's been putting together a metal-working shop with the ultimate aim - as far as I can work out from my limited understanding of Russian - of building a jet plane in his backyard.
If this sounds, dangerous, don't worry: he isn't quite there yet, and unlike his forebears who put cosmonauts in orbit, he believes in testing. To hone his skills he's been taking both homemade engines and salvaged parts and attaching them to... well, basically anything he can think of, apparently.
Enter the jet-powered BMW. Yet, that's exactly what it sounds like: a 1990s BMW that's had its regular engine replaced with a jet engine. Apart from the obvious control issues, there's the fact that none of the BMW's parts were designed with that kind of force in mind, which is probably why the tires caught fire at one point during testing. But don't worry, if that seems to dangerous for you there's always Igor's motorized bicycle. Sure, it's motorized with a helicopter engine, but during its first tests it got a whole twenty feet before it caught fire. It even comes with a handy metal plate you can strap to your back - you know, for safety.
Molten metal gun, also freeze ray
No article on backyard science would be complete without a reference to The Backyard Scientist. Over the years this Florida man has put out dozens of science videos on how to blow up fruit, vegetables, swimming pools, etc, etc. Don't let his appearance on this list fool you, many of his experiments do have genuine educational value, but he's made one or two inventions that make it seem like he's really trying to earn the Florida Man title officially.
The dangers of a squirt gun that shoots pressurized molten metal are obvious: no one wants to end up covered in molten pewter. Don't worry though, if that's too much for you you can easily convert it into a simple flamethrower.
His more subtly lethal invention is the freeze ray - really just liquid nitrogen in a thermos flask with a nozzle attached. The problem here is that he makes it look way too easy, squirting it on his girlfriend and playing around with it as a fire-extinguisher. You know there are real safety concerns when the sentence: "Using this on a person probably isn't the best idea, but you know what they say: it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission." comes up in a video.
As he demonstrates with a bunch of flowers, hold the freeze ray too close and it'll cool it to the point where a light tap will shatter it like a The X Factor contestant's aspirations of stardom. More than a few people have lost extremities this way, including a young German cook who lost both hands trying to follow famous British chef Heston's Blumenthal's icecream recipe.
Even more dangerous, anyone unaware of proper liquid nitrogen safety could easily use the freeze ray indoors without adequate ventilation. When liquid nitrogen vaporizes it just goes back to being harmless nitrogen in the air, but in a high enough quantity (admittedly probably more than could fit in a thermos) the proportion of oxygen in the air could drop low enough to suffocate anyone in the room; nitrogen is normally a perfectly harmless natural component of air and the first warning you get is when you pass out.
But hey, who doesn't love the idea of an instant-icecream gun?
Part engineering channel, part comedy act where you get to watch a man get shocked over and over (and over) again, ElectroBOOM somehow manages to be an even more descriptive channel name than BackyardScientist. For years, the Iranian-Canadian engineer behind it has been teaching us what NOT to do with electronics in the most hands-on way possible.
Literally every video involves him getting electrocuted in some way, but of all the contraptions he's put together over the years one of the most dangerous is also one of the most innocuous: just a bottle with some salt-water in it and a bit of conductive material wrapped around it. Don't make the mistake of thinking that a device has to look like a mad scientist's LSD trip to be dangerous: this is ElectroBoom's version of the high-voltage capacitor.
As anyone who knows anything about electronics knows, high-voltage capacitors are dangerous as hell - they're the thing that can get you even when the machine they're a part of has been switched off. Because it's so easy to touch a capacitor without realizing it still has a charge, they're one of the main causes of fatalities in electronic engineering.
Of course, ElectroBoom's capacitor doesn't output enough power to actually kill him, just really, really hurt - as he demonstrates several times - but there's no reason in theory that this design couldn't carry a fatal charge. If you're wondering why I chose this homemade capacitor rather than any of the others on YouTube (like the one on the King of Random's channel, which ElectroBoom made his in response to), it's because it comes with a better explanation of the science and serves as an effective safety demonstration on how easy it is to accidentally shock yourself with it. Seriously, watch yourself around those things.
Lightning kites and x-ray guns
I don't understand how these people are still alive. Really. It baffles me.
Follow the rabbit hole of Slavic YouTube all the way down to the bottom, and you'll find Kreosan: the Ukrainian engineers who laugh in the face of death. Maybe it's the ongoing civil war in their part of the world (they have several videos reviewing the bomb damage their hometown has suffered), but these guys have clearly just decided that life is too short to worry about things like safety - and in their case it probably will be.
Some of their earliest adventures were the old kite-flying-during-a-thunderstorm experiment, which shot Benjamin Franklin to instant international fame, and shot many other 18th century scientists fifty feet back in a flaming fireball (seriously, almost all the early attempts to replicate Franklin's experiment ended in death.)
They also like to explore the Chernobyl exclusion zone. They've even created a base there in an abandoned flat in Pripyat.
Their inventions include conventional machines like a motorized bicycled, and less conventional ones like an EMP gun. However, an EMP gun isn't really dangerous to humans (unless they have a pacemaker). It's their casual attitude towards dangerous radiation that takes the top spot, in the form of an x-ray gun. Yep, that's right - they've built a jury-rigged x-ray machine.
One the one hand, they actually do seem to manage to get a couple of good pictures of their skeletons. On the other hand, cancer. Really - that thing is just a cancer gun. Additionally, the components they use definitely aren't store-bought; they most likely salvaged them from old microwaves and other junk electronics, which carry their own dangers like undischarged capacitors and beryllium poisoning.
So if you want to see what your own skeleton looks like and need an x-ray machine from someone who won't ask for paperwork, maybe try asking Kreosan if you can borrow theirs. Just make sure first that your life insurance covers cancer.
The 9mm shotgun slug
This one almost feels like cheating. After all, aren't guns meant to be dangerous? Well, usually the idea is that they're not supposed to be dangerous to the person shooting them. The Youtuber Taofledermaus – known in real life as Jeff Heeszel – has found one or two "improvements" to the regular firearm that stretch this rule.
Taofledermaus is a firearms-focused Youtube channel that primarily tests new and imaginative ammunition designs that can be fired from a standard shotgun. Taofledermaus himself has created more than a few variations on the tried-and-true shotgun slug, but most of the ammunition he tests is sent into him by commercial sellers and (over)eager viewers. When testing a new round, there's always the small danger that it'll either damage the gun or fly so weirdly that it'll ricochet back towards the shooter, but thanks to a healthy respect for gun safety there haven't been too many close calls over the years. However, there has been one round so dangerous that even Taofledermaus wouldn't shoot it.
Yes, that's right, it's a bullet inside a bullet. Specifically a 9mm round inside a 12ga. shotgun slug, designed by a German named Shimon Biermann. The idea is that when the slug hits the target, the 9mm round goes off to make it just that extra bit deadly; presumably the intended targets are cats, or something else with multiple lives, because normally anything that just got hit by a 12ga slug would be pretty dead already.
Anyone familiar with shotguns or ballistics should be able to see a few potential problems with this. The 9mm could very easily go off in the barrel when the slug is fired, causing a chain reaction that would explode the weapon in the user's hands. Alternatively, the slug could flip over in-flight and be pointing back at the shooter by the time it hits the target and triggers the 9mm round (which is in fact exactly what happened when Taofledermaus fired the slug on its own).
So, if you've ever wondered how you can pull off a murder-suicide in one shot, this is the bullet for you. Otherwise it's probably best left on the shelf.
NileRed is one of the more serious channels on this list: he does a lot of in depth chemistry tutorials and experiments, demonstrating quite sophisticated science using only the equipment in his home laboratory. He's well used to handling dangerous chemicals on a regular basis, and doesn't play fast and loose with safety like some of the other people on this list.
However, if I were him I'd have drawn the line at trying to recreate uranium glass. That's right, uranium - the radioactive material used in nuclear bombs. Okay... he wasn't using enriched uranium capable of sustaining a chain reaction, but still, radioactive materials are no joke.
It isn't widely known (although you may well be aware of it if you read this sort of article), but during the late 19th and early 20th century there was a craze for all things radioactive. People liked the way radioactive materials fluoresced, and when it was first discovered many people latched onto it as a new miracle medicine that gave you all kinds of wonderful modern life juice. The result of this is that many things manufactured in the early 20th century contain traces of radioactive substances such as uranium, including glassware like pitchers and cups.
In NileRed's defense, you can see why he'd want to try this: the glowing green glassware is beautiful, and in good condition it isn't all that harmful (there's only small amount of uranium in each cup, and as long as you don't accidentally ingest small fragments it's not very likely to harm you).
However, homemade uranium glass is another matter. It involves handling uranium dust, which can easily be inhaled; basically it's airborne cancer. Obviously, being an experienced chemist NileRed is sensible enough to wear a mask and kept the sample damp, but of all the 'don't try this at home' things in this thread, this is one of the things you really want to stay the hell away from.
Even once you've managed to actually make the glass, depending on the quantity of uranium you used, it won't necessarily be safe. The sample NileRed produced had the approximate output of one dental x-ray every two hours when actually touching the detector – safe to handle for short periods, but not something you should carry around with you every day.
If you tried this yourself (don't) and used a higher proportion of uranium dust, you could easily end up with something that isn't safe to take out of its lead-lined box without protective clothing. And as with several other things on this list, what really makes this dangerous is that it's very easy to pick up something like this without realizing what it is. Many of the worst examples of radiation poisoning come from people finding discarded radiation sources and carrying them around, not suspecting that the trinket might be dangerous until they start to get sick.
Once you get past the serious risk of cancer, though, NileRed's attempt at radioactive ornaments really were beautiful. But like a stormy sea, or a crazy woman, it is beauty best viewed from a distance.
I've saved the most dangerous creation for last. I wanted to make that clear, because in many ways this one seems a lot more innocent than the others on this list. It wasn't designed to be a high tech weapon, or some out-there contraption that only a wannabe mad scientist would come up with. In fact, in many ways it's one of the purest expressions of the inventor's art: to push past his current horizons and find knew knowledge, and new freedom.
However, of all the inventions on this list, in my opinion this one is the most likely to lead to a fatality. Behold Peter Sripol:
It's a homemade aeroplane. Several, actually, both with electric and more conventional fossil fuel engines. For the last few years, youtuber Peter Sripol has been designing and building fully-functional aircraft that can carry a human being (him). On the face of it, this is just plain awesome – one of the greatest technical achievements of any inventor on YouTube.
However, light aircraft are death-traps even when they're manufactured by professionals; the last celebrity death in one as of this article's publication was Kobe Bryant, but there's a good chance there'll have been another one if this has been up for a while (my money's on Harrison Ford). Flying an airplane built in your own garage from polystyrene and perspex is effectively just building a suicide booth with extra steps (sorry for mixing up my comedy sci-fi cartoon references there).
Other youtubers, like Colinfurze mentioned above, have made their own attempts at creating flying machines capable of carrying a human being, but mostly they're only capable of short flights a few feet off the ground. Peter Sripol has made a legitimate aeroplane capable of flying several hundred feet in the air for extended periods.
Needless to say, this is really, really dangerous. When you reach those heights, even a minor mechanical failure or pilot error could be fatal. Fortunately Sripol has started taking a parachute up with him, so at least he has a chance of a last resort if something goes wrong in mid-air. But as the aviation buffs among you will know, most accidents happen on take-off and landing.
The saving grace of his designs so far is that they've been light enough that they can get airborne at really low speeds compared to most aircraft, but that probably only means he's got a better chance of having an open-casket funeral.
After all the lethal and bizarre inventions I've given you so far, it's nice to end on an inventor doing what he does best for no other reason than it's his passion. It's just that, as beautiful as it is seeing him soar through the air, I can't watch these videos without a chilling sense of foreboding